Long arms of law embrace Haiti

Vancouver police, other local officers make mission trip to help train counterparts

By Paul Suarez, Columbian web producer

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You can help

Portland police Lt. Tom McGranahan said his group is looking for people to serve on the mission team, even if they aren’t police officers. The group is also looking for donations of money or equipment. Anyone interested in helping should call McGranahan at 503-823-4881.

Haitian police get a few weeks of training, a uniform, handcuffs, a gun and 10 bullets to start their careers, said Vancouver police officer Charlie Ahn, who recently returned from a mission trip to the country. After that, they are pretty much on their own.

“I feel like they’re doing the same work we’re doing here, but it’s just way more dangerous for them,” Ahn said.

To help level the playing field, Ahn and five officers from other Portland-area agencies traveled to Haiti in November to help train members of its police force, provide them with donated safety equipment and share the gospel.

The group traveled with the help of Forward Edge International, a local faith-based relief organization, to the coastal town of Carrefour, which sits just west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.

The group included Ahn, one officer from each from the Gresham and Forest Grove police departments and three from the Portland Police Bureau. Three officers’ wives also went.

Ahn was struck by the things he saw in a nation still trying to recover from the earthquake that devastated Haiti almost two years ago.

In a tent city, 5-foot by 5-foot tents housed six or seven people, and sewage streamed from the shelters. Small fires burned all over the place. The odor is “something you’ll never forget,” he said.

“You hear about Haiti, you see it on TV, but it’s definitely a different experience when you see it firsthand,” Ahn said.

Portland police Lt. John Brooks, who lives in Clark County, said it was eye-opening to see what life is like in another country.

“There was a lot of growth spiritually and personally for participating in something like that,” he said.

Brooks said he appreciated having a chance to share his expertise with others.

Scratching the surface

Haitian police get four weeks of training in an academy, where they mostly learn how to wear a uniform, salute and march, said Portland police Lt. Tom McGranahan, who helped organize the trip.

The group taught two sections of about 20 police officers during the trip. The course just scratched the surface, McGranahan said. The visitors taught defensive tactics, crowd control, and how to use batons and firearms, he said, adding that many Haitian officers don’t have investigative or interrogative skills, or know how police function in a democratic society.

The majority of Haitian officers didn’t even know how to throw a punch, Vancouver’s Ahn said. “It was a huge benefit to get the basics.”

Haitian officers mainly deal with strong-arm robberies, Ahn said. Suspects often flee through alleys on motorcycles.

Lack of communication and equipment can be a challenge. Ahn estimates the Carrefour police department had about 10 radios, five vehicles, very few bulletproof vests and no helmets.

Officers are issued 10 rounds of ammunition. After it’s gone, they must buy their own, McGranahan said. They also use personal cellphones instead of radios to communicate with each other, he added.

Ahn’s group bought four boxes of ammunition and bags of donated personal equipment to give to police. They gave bullets to some of their students and sent the rest to the police commissioner to be distributed to the rest of the force, McGranahan said.

The group hopes to chip away at the lack of training and equipment to produce a safer job for their “brothers and sisters in law enforcement,” McGranahan said. “I get chills thinking we have a long-lasting impact,” he said.

The group is also pleased with the Haitian police’s response to the training. Team members said the police weren’t sure what to think of the U.S. group at first, but became very responsive when they realized the visitors were there to help instead of correct.

At the end of each day, an officer with the U.S. group would share experiences of what it was like being a Christian and a police officer in the United States.

They hoped to teach the Haitian officers that “being a police officer isn’t a job, it’s a calling,” Ahn said. “It’s a calling from God to protect the people that need it. You can’t come to the job and clock in and clock out. You have to have a heart.”

The group plans to make another trip in April. They hope a few Haitians who were trained in November will return to reinforce their lessons and to prepare them to be trainers for their department, Ahn said.

The group also hopes to recruit more stateside volunteers so they can make more than two trips a year.